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The Center Back as a playmaker

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Tall, strong and ball-winning - That's how most coaches would describe an ideal center back. Although the position’s main demands have barely changed over the years, many requirements have been added in the era of modern football. In part three of our blog series "Physical demands of the football player" we take a closer scientific look at the position of the center-back.

If you look at the center back of Europe’s top leagues, two things become immediately obvious. For one thing, most players are tall, mostly around 1.90m, which helps them to win high balls and duels in the penalty area. For another thing, they are often some of the most well-known players of their club. Center backs, they are the leaders of a team. They control their own defense and, in the best case, the opponent as well. In modern football they are also an important part of their team’s attacking efforts, they must get open to receive passes and control the build-up. Especially after back-passes, it is the center-backs who decide whether the game is made fast or slow.

The scientific facts

Same as for the modern-day full back, the development of football over the last few years has also had a dramatic impact on the game requirements for the inside defenders. Rio Ferdinand, Kolo Touré and Nemanja Vidic are just three of the center backs who played in the Premier League between 2006/07 and 2012/13, witnessing the scientifically documented change in physical and tactical demands of the game. An increase of 33% in high-intensity runs and a 53% increase in the sprint distance show that also the center back’s game has adapted to modern-day football during this period. The relatively short sprint distance (faster than 25.1 km/h) of about 197m per game shows another important feature of the center back. While full backs on the outside lane have to maintain their speed over long distances, center backs often encounter quick and agile strikers close to the penalty area and must be able to keep up with their fast movements over mostly short-distances. Well-developed quickness and agility is therefore particularly important for this position.

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In addition to the increased running distance it is above all the 66% increase in the number of passes played, which represents the largest increase of all considered positions, that proves that the center back has developed from a pure defender to a true playmaker. Especially when considering that the number of tacklings did not change during this time, the scientists justify the increase in performance with an offensively more committed center back. The increasing focus on ball possession and the related offensive build-up in modern tactics form the basis for the change in positional tasks. Although the center back constantly has the smallest total distance run per game in all the formations examined, it is noticeable that also he shows his best running performance in a modern 3-5-2 system. Like for the full back, modern football also means for the center back: More running, more offensive football!

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Position-specific training

The data shows: Even the center back must be trained to a complete player. The increase in high-intensity runs and an increasing involvement in the offensive game not only require center backs to have a strong conditional level of performance, but also excellent technical skills. Especially ball-possession focused teams should therefore emphasize the development of those abilities in their defenders.

The following exercise is an example of what a position-specific drill could look like. Here we create a small-sided 2vs2 with offside rule. The center backs try to keep the attacking players from successful combination play. If the defenders gain possession of the ball, the ball should be placed in one of the two pug goals with less than three ball touches.

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Besides good positional play the center backs will learn how to take control of the build-up that follows after gaining possession of the ball. To work on the defensive skills even more game-related you can throw in some variations, such as having the first pass played from a midfield position. That way attacking players will have to line up with the two defenders in their back.

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As another variation this exercise can be progressed to a 6 vs 6 (more like a 6 vs 5+1) step-by-step.

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This drill is focusing not only on efficiently defending with a back-four, but also on a fast and controlled transition game after gaining possession of the ball. Players will learn to move the ball out of the own half as fast and as precise as possible to allow the back-four to get out their own half of the field.

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[1] Tierney, P. J. et al (2016). Match play demands of 11 versus 11 professional football using Global Positioning System tracking: Variations across common playing formations
[2] Bush, M et al (2015). Evolution of match performance parameters for various playing positions in the English Premier League.
[3] Bradley, P. S. et al (2013). Match performance and physical capacity of players in the top three competitive standards of English professional soccer.
[4] Bradley, P. S. et al (2009). High-intensity running in English FA Premier League soccer matches.
[5] Bradley, P. S. et al (2010). High-Intensity Activity Profiles of Elite Soccer Players at Different Performance Levels.
[6] Di Salvo, V. et al (2007). Performance Characteristics According to Playing Position in Elite Soccer.
[7] Dellal, A. et al (2010). Physical and technical activity of soccer players in the French First League - with special reference to their playing position.
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